Academy Award winning actor Ernest Borgnine died this Sunday, July 8. He was 95 years old. I’m going to be feeling a little melancholy today, remembering not only the actor, but also all the bits and pieces of my life that were unwittingly tangled up in some moment that included Ernest Borgnine.
It’s not that I was a great, great fan. But in remembering Borgnine, I immediately think of the movie The Poseidon Adventure, something I haven’t considered in a long, long time. It’s the mid-1970s and I’m nine or ten years old sitting in front of our console television in my polyester flowered nightgown, staying up way too late, eating Jiffy Pop and hoping Shelly Winters is going to be able to swim through that underwater corridor and save the passengers. My mom is sitting on our green sofa, wrapping her hair in curlers. My dad is alive again and saying something like, “Just till the next commercial, girls, then it’s time for bed” even though my younger sister and I know he’ll let us stay up to watch the whole movie. The tubes in the television hum and glow and it’s an all-star cast with our old beagle asleep in the back yard, plaid school uniforms in my closet, milk in a glass bottle, and my grandfather upstairs boycotting this silliness, don’t you know the Mets are playing on the other channel?
And with this one slivered memory of a 1970s disaster film, I’ve suddenly become a character from the play Our Town.
Oh, Ernest Borgnine! You were too wonderful for anybody to realize you!
I’ll spend the rest of the day playing my “Have A Nice Day” CD compilation, singing Maureen McGovern songs and generally driving my kids insane. And when they ask me, “What’s up”, I’ll tell them that Ernest Borgnine died—at which point my kids will probably know better than to ask, “Who was that?”
I’ll tell them anyway.
The Poseidon Adeventure, 1972
Borgnine plays a police lieutenant, Mike Rogo, married to a former prostitute. They are on a doomed cruise chip. The rest, as they say, writes itself.
Mike Rogo: This is the first trip since we got married.
Linda Rogo: Yeah, and why we didn’t fly, I’ll never know.
The Wild Bunch, 1969
(WARNING: Lots of shooting and girls in bustiers in this clip.)
Co-written by Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch was noteworthy at the time for its extreme violence (which may seem mild by today’s Kill Bill standard) and the use of slow motion in action scenes. We see this all the time now, right? Well, back in the day, Borgnine was in some cutting-edge film work. This will be on the final test.
McHale’s Navy, 1962-1966
God bless Hulu for making McHale’s Navy available again. I get a kick out of explaining laugh tracks to my kids. And why black and white video doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong with your screen. For extra credit, I attempt deconstructing the entire War Sitcom genre, beginning with McHale’s Navy, touching upon M*A*S*H, and ending with Hogan’s Heroes. ”You see, kids, there are these Nazis. But they’re funny Nazis.”
Start with the country song by C. W. McCall, add Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw (Steve McQueen’s wife at the time), 18 wheels worth of CB radio lingo, a self-destructing Sam Peckinpah directing, and one of the most famous stunt drivers in the business—Bob Herron—driving a Chevelle through a billboard AND a barn, and you have a film for the ages. Borgnine plays the despicable sheriff, “Dirty Lyle” Wallace. Am I the only one who asked for (and received) a CB radio for Christmas that year? 10-4, Good Buddy! Catch ya on the flip flop!
And after all that, if your kids are still unimpressed with Ernest Bornine’s amazing contribution to the catalog of pop culture, show them this:
Spongebob Squarepants, Mermaid Man
Borgnine was the voice of Mermaid Man.
Maybe now my kids will recognize the great talent that was Ernest Borgnine. And understand a bit of our loss.